I was inspired to read The Little Sister, by Raymond Chandler, after seeing the film Marlowe, which is based on it. The story in The Little Sister is told from the first-person point of view, that of Philip Marlowe, the famous private investigator. Orfamay Quest comes to Los Angeles from Manhattan, Kansas, to find her brother Orrin and hires Marlowe to help her. Orfamay Quest is not entirely forthcoming about her or her brother’s predicament: Orrin may or may not be involved in murder, blackmail, and misplaced family loyalty. But Marlowe figures it out by the end of the novel, and thus viewers do, too.
Saying more than that about the plot would give away too much, and The Little Sister should be enjoyed with as little preconception about the story as possible. For many, however, this is nearly impossible. Philip Marlowe has been around in literary circles since 1939, when Raymond Chandler wrote his first Marlowe novel and the private investigator got his start in pulp fiction. Since then, numerous radio shows, films, and television episodes have been based on the Marlowe novels.
I have not read all the Philip Marlowe novels, but Marlowe, as written by Chandler in The Little Sister, is not just a hard-boiled private investigator roughing up criminals. In fact, Marlowe is most often the recipient of or the witness to whatever violence occurs. The Little Sister doesn’t have much of it, in spite of the four or five murders that are part of the plot. Marlowe is a humorous, self-deprecating, poetic observer of his life and his profession.
Humorous, self-deprecating, and poetic are not the adjectives usually associated with detectives from the pulp fiction tradition. However, the novel has many humorous lines of dialogue and observations delivered by Philip Marlowe that show the private investigator is all three. To bolster my point, most of my blog post is going contain a lot of quotations. But you’ll still have plenty to enjoy if you should read the novel yourself. I read the novel twice. My only complaint about it is that it is too short!
(This blog post about the novel The Little Sister contains some spoilers.)
Here are some examples of Marlowe’s sense of humor:
◊ The first occurs during his first phone conversation with Orfamay Quest, who eventually hires Marlowe to find her missing brother:
“I don’t think I’d care to employ a detective that uses liquor in any form. I don’t even approve of tobacco.”
“Would it be all right if I peeled an orange?”
I caught the sharp intake of breath at the far end of the line. “You might at least talk like a gentleman,” she said.
“Better try the University Club,” I told her. “I heard they had a couple left over there, but I’m not sure they’ll let you handle them.” I hung up. (page 204)
◊ In the following exchange, Philip Marlowe talks to George W. Hicks, who is staying in the room on Idaho Street in Bay City once occupied by Orfamay’s brother, Orrin Quest:
“He coulda went somewhere without telling me,” he mused.
“Your grammar,” I said “is almost as loose as your toupee.”
“You lay off my toupee, if you know what’s good for you,” he shouted.
“I wasn’t going to eat it,” I said. “I’m not that hungry.” (page 225)
◊ Philip Marlowe tells Orfamay Quest what he found on Idaho Street:
She seated herself demurely and waited.
“All I could find out,” I told her, “is that the dump on Idaho Street is peddling reefers. That’s marijuana cigarettes.”
“Why, how disgusting,” she said.
“We have to take the bad with the good in this life,” I said. (pages 230–231)
◊ Philip Marlowe’s answer to amorous advances from Dolores Gonzalez:
“Just for half an hour,” I said. “let’s leave the sex to one side. It’s great stuff, like chocolate sundaes. But there comes a time you would rather cut your throat. I guess maybe I’d better cut mine.” (page 356)
Philip Marlow is also self-deprecating:
◊ Marlowe after doing some inquires at the Van Nuys Hotel:
I nodded and went out. There are days like that. Everybody you meet is a dope. You begin to look at yourself in the glass and wonder. (page 240)
◊ Marlowe after being drugged in Dr. Vincent Lagardie’s office and coming to:
I was looking at the ceiling, lying on my back on the floor, a position in which my calling has occasionally placed me. . . . (page 329)
◊ Philip Marlowe refuses to help Dolores Gonzales with her blackmail plot:
She reached out the gauntleted hand across the desk. Her voice was cold. “Give it back to me, please.”
“I’ll give it back to Mavis Weld. And I hate to tell you this, Miss Gonzales, but I’d never get anywhere as a blackmailer. I just don’t have the engaging personality.”
“Give it back to me!” she said sharply. “If you do not—”
She cut herself off. I waited for her to finish. A look of contempt showed on her smooth features.
“Very well,” she said. “It is my mistake. I thought you were smart, I can see that you are just another dumb private eye. This shabby little office,” she waved a black gloved hand at it, “and the shabby little life that goes on here—they ought to tell me what sort of idiot you are.”
“They do,” I said. (page 340)
And Marlowe, private investigator, is poetically observant:
◊ Marlowe is outside Mavis Weld’s apartment building:
. . . Across the way [on Doheny Drive] a guy in riding breeches was sprawled with his legs over the door of a low-cut Lancia. He was smoking and looking up at the pale stars which know enough to keep their distance from Hollywood. (page 257)
◊ Philip Marlowe is present when Orrin P. Quest dies:
Something happened to his face and behind his face, the indefinable thing that happens in that always baffling and inscrutable moment, the smoothing out, the going back over the years to the age of innocence. The face now had a vague inner amusement, an almost roguish lift at the corners of the mouth. All of which was very silly, because I knew damn well, if I ever knew anything at all, that Orrin P. Quest had not been that kind of boy. (page 332)
Marlowe, the film based on the novel, follows the novel rather closely—but with enough changes to make a small difference in tone. It’s unusual for me to say this, but I enjoyed the film a bit more than the novel. It’s also unusual for me to say that I’m glad that I saw the film first. In this case, however, both are true. The film was updated for the year that it was released (1969), and quite a bit of the humor was unique to the film and to the time of its release, even though many lines of dialogue were taken from the novel. I said in my blog post about the film that the film’s contemporary reviewers didn’t like it all that much and that it was just as hard to follow as Raymond Chandler’s writing. Now that I have read the novel that the film is based on, I refuse to contribute to—or subscribe to—the myth that the plots of Raymond Chandler’s novels and the films based on them do not make much sense.
Click here for my blog post about Marlowe, the film based on Raymond Chandler’s novel The Little Sister.
I must admit, though, that I found a couple of minor plot holes after reading The Little Sister twice. For instance, the first time that the name Leila, which is linked to one of the main characters, is mentioned, it’s not clear how Marlowe knows who Leila is. Did he conduct a Quest family history or not? Chandler never states this clearly, but it’s hardly a major plot flaw. Readers can discern who Leila is without Chandler describing Marlowe’s investigation specifically.
Toward the end of the novel, Marlowe describes Orfamay Quest has returning to her original style of clothing and makeup. She arrived in Los Angeles from Manhattan, Kansas, looking a bit dowdy, supposedly altered her look while in Los Angeles, and then went back to looking a bit dowdy because she had every intention of returning to Manhattan, Kansas. I missed this transformation for Orfamay during my first reading of the novel. When I read The Little Sister the second time, I realized that Marlowe only imagined Orfamay Quest changing her clothes and hairstyle and wearing makeup. The way Orfamay presents herself is an important plot point, but nothing about her clothes, glasses, and makeup will prevent readers from understanding the plot.
The Little Sister is a fun read—I read it twice, just like I saw the film twice. I admit that the story, that is, Marlowe’s investigation, is a bit hard to follow, but it’s not impossible, as some film and book reviewers will have you believe. Chandler’s language and observations, as told through his character Philip Marlowe, are a real treat. Both the film and the novel were opportunities to lose myself in a great story.
Later Novels & Other Writings, by Raymond Chandler • New York: The Library of America, 1995 • Chandler’s novel The Little Sister was originally published in 1949.
List of main characters:
Philip Marlowe, private investigator • Orfamay Quest, Marlowe’s client • Lester B. Clausen • George W. Hicks • Mavis Weld, film actress • Dolores Gonzalez, Mavis’s friend • Steelgrave, Mavis’s boyfriend • Detective Lieutenant Christy French • Detective Lieutenant Fred Beifus • Dr. Vincent Lagardie • Orrin P. Quest, Orfamay’s brother
The image of the front cover is from The Library of America anthology. The page references in this blog post refer to The Library of America publication listed above.